London is the most desirable place in the world to work ? Erm, no thank you…

The past weeks have seen British websites buzzing with excitement at London’s official title of most desirable city in the world to work. As someone who is always proud to tell people I was born there, this wouldn’t have surprised me six months ago. Most of my friends from university want to and will end up with graduate jobs there and it is one of the biggest financially and culturally significant cities in Europe, if not the world.

The study, compiled by Boston Consulting Group, questioned 200,000 people in 189 countries and found that London was the most preferred destination for work purposes, followed by New York and Paris.

Since travelling Canada and Asia, however, I have been shocked to find that there are so many more liveable, beautiful and affordable cities than London. I can only speculate as to what attracts so many people to London, but since being in Shanghai I have found it a particularly worthy competitor in more ways than one.

Here I will look at five general factors involved in relocation. Their findings make me question why London seems so desirable a work location for so many.

Economic competitiveness

Yes, we all know that London is the powerhouse of the UK and is pretty competitive in terms of the worldwide economy. But the fact that the UK’s economic growth of 1.9% last year was its most impressive in six years makes me suspect that the future for London is one of stagnation. The UK was the first country to industralise and is a respected part of many developed, international organisations. But even though its economy is now back to pre-crisis levels, alarm bells are knelling: average income per person is dropping, inflation is higher than in most rich countries and unemployment levels are proving stubbornly high. It it is no wonder the economic recovery has been labelled merely ‘symbolic’.  So, London is where the jobs in Britain are – but for how long?

Contrastingly, the majority of the fastest growing economies are now in Asia. China’s GDP for 2013 was 7.7%, and the fact this was a relative disappointment for the country is telling. In fact, the IMF recently crowned it the world’s largest economy. Shanghai is the commercial and financial centre of mainland China. This is not to say they aren’t problems aplenty for it (population and traffic control, housing prices etc) but its growth remains staggering. Simply being there, gazing at the skyline, and feeling the city’s tremendous buzz is enough to convince you that this is where the economic centre of the world increasingly is.

Cultural attractions

London is one of the most culturally vibrant cities in the world, making it attractive to people from all over. Three of the top 10 museums and galleries in the world are located there, and the city is home to four UNESCO world heritage sites and approximately 250 festivals each year. Some of these museums and attractions are free (British Museum, Science Museum etc.) and others are affordable, but one has to pity the hordes of tourists who could get more bang for their buck in pretty much any other city. The proof? London was named the most expensive city in Europe for culture just a few months ago. The survey, which compared prices for the best cultural attractions the city had to offer, found that two people would have to pay £256 for visits to a museum, art gallery, ballet, opera and classical concert. The same in Warsaw would cost just £70.

Many Asian cities such as Shanghai are, unfortunately, known more for their skyscrapers and smog than their cultural attractions. I have found in Shanghai, however, the cultural scene to be smaller than I’m used to, but strangely more rewarding. Possibly this is because the expat circle is smaller and thus tighter, but I have found there to be a multitude of events, all teeming with outgoing, international people. This month’s weekends alone have played host to: the 10th annual jazz festival, the top 100 DJs festival, Shanghai’s first international beer festival and more. In terms of paying for the usual tourist attractions, the Pearl Tower has proved the only expensive one. Many others have been very affordable, for instance: Yuyuan Gardens (40 RMB), Jade Buddha Temple (20 RMB) and entry into Century Park (10 RMB).

Ethnic mix

It is an indisputable truth that people from the same ethnicity like living in close proximity to one another. This is one of the most significant reasons as to why people from all corners of the earth are attracted to London – nearly ever race or culture is represented there. And there are more than 300 languages spoken, more than in any other city. It is, therefore, no wonder the city has been labelled ‘possibly the most cosmopolitan city in the world’, a wondrous accolade that even I cannot and will not critique.

In terms of expat numbers, however, cities such as Shanghai are making gains. Although 98.8% of Shanghai’s residents are of Han Chinese ethnicity, it must be remembered that the city is the largest in the entire world. So with it housing over 23 million, most ethnic groups can be found there, albeit in smaller numbers than London. This trend looks set to continue, as between 2011 and 2012, the expat population increased by 6.7%, to 173,000. China’s mainland has been recently ranked the third top destination to be an expat in, in terms of career progression, financial well-being and quality of life. Not only this, but Asia is home to the highest earning expats, 34% of which are from the UK.

Beauty and proximity to nature

Like most big cities, neither London nor Shanghai is famed for its beauty. Would-be inhabitants might therefore try to escape from the city’s chaos by looking to the city’s green spaces and day trips. In terms of parks, London’s are more well known, though not necessarily better. Hyde Park is the most famous, Regents Park the most packed with attractions and Hampstead Heath and St James’s are pretty lovely too.

But Shanghai certainly has some gorgeous areas to boast of. Century Park is the biggest park, full of variety, beauty and boats. People’s Park and Fuxing Park are also highly regarded. An issue problematic throughout China, though more so in Beijing, is that of pollution. Solutions do, obviously, need to be found, but with so many picturesque areas near Shanghai, it is hardly a deal breaker. Hangzhou, an hour away by slick bullet train, is a city boasting the beautiful West Lake – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are also many lovely water towns nearby, such as Zhujiajiao, Suzhou and Wuzhen. Whereas, London’s public transport is old, expensive, slow and prone to delays, making day trips a hassle. There’s Brighton, Cambridge, Stonehenge (some big stones) and, um, not much more…

Cost of living

If the above hasn’t provided a compelling argument for London’s overrated status, then cost of living comparisons will do. It would be absurd to state that people are attracted to London for its prices, but surely an ability to live comfortably in the city in which you work is something worth taking into consideration?

Housing:  Both London and Shanghai have problems with soaring housing costs. In London, prices have jumped 18.4% in the past year and in Shanghai they rose by 17% in 2013. Housing prices are actually more expensive relative to income in Shanghai, but if coming over for work and accustomed to Western prices then pretty much anything accommodation-wise here seems inexpensive.

Transportation: London’s transport inflation has become comically bad over recent years, with fares pushed up by 42% since 2008, and a zones 1-5 yearly travelcard setting you back over £2000. Shanghai might be China’s most expensive city, but its modern metro system never sets you back more than 50p per journey. I’ve been using the metro nearly daily for 6 weeks now, and have spent under £20 on travel all in all.

Night-life: Though there are some cheap-ish places and pre-drinking solves many problems, it’s not unusual for pints to cost £5 and cocktails £10-15 in London. A few months ago I paid £8 just to enter a very average bar in Camden on a Saturday night. On the other hand, partying in Shanghai as a foreigner means that club entry and drinks are likely to be free. This can be attributed to the ‘exotic’ Westerner syndrome, but even without it, it’s rare for drinks to cost more than a few pounds.

Food: After spending about £10 on a day long travel-card into the city centre, food is the next horrible expense to deal with in London. An underwhelming panini from a coffee chain is a good £4 and a pizza chain can easily charge £10 for a margherita. Meanwhile, eating out in China is extremely affordable . With a decent dinner costing a few pounds from a small restaurant, it is no wonder meals out can be a daily occurrence, not the weekly treat they are back home. Thanks to street food, in Shanghai I can eat three meals a day and spend just £2.

Ultimately, London might be a desirable city in which to work, but the fact it is the most expensive should be more of a deterrent to job-seekers across the globe. With regards to criteria such as quality of life and cost of living, there are so many other great cities to work and live in.

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